“Next, while I’m still soloing, Prince closes his eyes and gives me this slow, deliberate nod.”
I heard about GAYNGS in the most boring possible way: reading their record label (Jagjaguwar) press release. The project of Minneapolis-based producer Ryan Olson was inspired by the synthesized meltwater slow jams of 70s lite-rock act 10cc and a bar-fueled dream/joke to write an entire album of material at 69 beats-per-minute. Whatever Olson’s original intentions, the GAYNGS project soon ballooned into a heartland conglomerate of 25 musicians that included Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, POS of Doomtree, and members of Solid Gold, Megafaun, Happy Apple, and The Rosebuds. I was surprised to see that an old friend of mine was also involved, singer and keyboardist Jake Luck of Leisure Birds. I spoke with Jake by phone after GAYNGS’ first (and Prom-themed) show at the legendary First Avenue in Minneapolis (photos here), the events of which came to be singed deep within Mr. Luck’s amygdala for reasons you’re about to appreciate.
Jake, are you prepared for my first volley?
Oh, I’m prepared all right.
How did you become involved with GAYNGS?
I’ve played on a bunch of Ryan’s projects. Typically, he calls me up every 6 months or so and has me record tracks on everything he is working on at the time, which is usually a lot of songs. He cuts and pastes everything and I don’t hear the final mixes until months later. I usually don’t really remember what I’ve done until after a couple of listens. GAYNGS was the same deal. The first time I heard the record, I had to do some pretty close listening just to figure out what I actually did on it.
“In that transfixed state, my eyes scanned to the right for a second and, like, 5 feet away from me, Prince is just standing there with his guitar strapped on.”
Were you surprised a label as big as Jagjaguwar decided to put out the record?
Well, yeah. Like I said, when I played on this record I thought I was just going to Ryan’s studio to eat pizza. You don’t really think about these things in terms of, “What if this album blows up?” because it’s just an unrealistic and probably unhealthy attitude to have.
Before the show at First Avenue, the entirety of GAYNGS holed up for a couple of days at Justin Vernon’s spot in Eau Claire to rehearse. Did that turn into the booze-fueled weekend of west Wisconsin debauchery that I imagine?
It was quite the romp. We had never played the songs as a band, and with 30 or so people there, it was hard to stay on track. It all came together pretty smoothly in the end, though.
Reviews of the First Ave show appeared to be mixed, but I don’t know if that was more a function of the music, the crowd’s expectations, or the Prom theme overwhelming all of the above?
The show was good. The expectations put on GAYNGS are so varied that I think it’s going to be hard to please everyone. You have fans of POS wondering why he isn’t rapping, fans of Bon Iver wondering why the songs are so loud, and a whole lot of people wondering who the hell I am. GAYNGS doesn’t sound like the individual members’ bands, but it does sound like the individual members, you know what I mean? I don’t really know what I mean anymore.
I gotcha. Now, on to the meat of this interview. I heard you have a story about the GAYNGS show.
I’m pretty sure my life passed before my eyes.
Prince was at your concert.
Indeed, the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince was there.
And how the hell did that happen?
Okay, so there was this rumor going around before the show that Prince might be there. And that was pretty hard to take seriously. I mean, give me a break people. It’s Minneapolis, so people always say he’s going to make a surprise appearance somewhere. I’ve never heard of that actually happening.
Doesn’t seem to leave Paisley Park very often, Vikings games aside (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ep4yyfgwBI).
Right. So, that was just something that people were saying that went in one ear and out the other. We’re playing the show and everything is fine. Before I know it, the show’s almost over and we’re in the middle of our second-to-last song. I’m set up far stage right, really close to the backstage area, which is behind a wall of speakers and completely hidden from the audience. I was in the middle of a solo on the keyboard, just completely zoned out at the time. My mouth was probably hanging open or something. In that transfixed state, my eyes scanned to the right for a second, and, like, 5 feet away from me, Prince is just standing there with his guitar strapped on.
I was shocked, but kept on playing while I looked over at him. Then, he turns his attention from the front of the stage, where all the action was, and focuses it on me. We’re literally right next to each other and he’s looking right at me. Prince and I are making eye contact. Next, while I’m still soloing, Prince closes his eyes and gives me this slow, deliberate nod.
Holy shit. And what did you do?
Well, I nodded back.
So Prince essentially validated you as a musician. You two totally shared a moment.
Well, I think it’s more like he let me share a moment with him. I think that’s more how he operates.
There was confusion as to what happened next. He had his guitar plugged in, standing next to you, but never actually joined you guys onstage?
Right, well Ryan came over to me shortly after “the nod” and whispered in my ear, “That’s Prince.” And I said, “Yeah… I know.” But what happened was, between songs, five or six people had to leave the stage. Prince was inadvertently blocking the stairs where he stood, and the guys needed to exit. I mean, who knows why he didn’t play, but I could see him maybe feeling he was getting in the way. There were so many people amidst so much commotion. Maybe that little confusing transition made things awkward enough for him to decide against playing. After those band members went off the stage, that was it. Prince disappeared.
A few people at the show asserted that you guys “refused” to introduce him, or something.
Really, people. Why wouldn’t we want Prince to play with us? He seemed really happy backstage, smiling and enjoying the show. Listen, the thing is that no one really knows the reasons for what happened — why he came, why he decided not to play.
“If Gandalf blows his pipe smoke at you and it turns into a cool looking boat as it slowly dissipates, it doesn’t mean that you’re suddenly “in” with Gandalf. He’s still a wizard. Like Prince. A wizard.”
The idea that any band could keep Prince off the stage of First Ave sounded dubious.
Of course. Another thing is that all of the songs were being run off of a sequencer that night, so if he had come on and soloed for awhile, I’m not sure how well that would have worked out. Could have been pretty awkward for us to jam or try extending a song under those constraints.
Do you remember what the collective feeling was amongst GAYNGS after the show? I’m sure you were all freaking out a little bit.
It was pretty wild. I played throughout the whole show, so I had no idea what would be going on back stage when it was over. If I’d found him again back there, still hanging out, I don’t know what I would have done. When Ryan walked over to him while we were playing, he whispered in Prince’s ear and put his hand on his back. I thought that was pretty provocative. I wouldn’t have done anything like that. I guess maybe I would have nodded at him again…
Listening to your story, knowing you and imagining this non-verbal interaction with Prince… it doesn’t seem real. Can’t imagine how you feel about it, unless Prince is now somewhat demystified in your eyes?
Absolutely not. If Gandalf blows his pipe smoke at you and it turns into a cool looking boat as it slowly dissipates, it doesn’t mean that you’re suddenly “in” with Gandalf. He’s still a wizard. Like Prince. A wizard. His mysterious disappearance didn’t help to humanize him either. Apparently he left out a door behind the stage that “average folks” aren’t allowed to use. That’s possible, but I didn’t see it with my own eyes.
Well, even though he didn’t play with you, I think you can take your Prince encounter as a good omen for GAYNGS’ upcoming tour. With you and (singer/guitarist) Nick Ryan about to invest all this time in GAYNGS, what does that mean for your main band, Leisure Birds?
Leisure Birds is moving along. Ryan Olsen is actually putting out our record on his label, Totally Gross National Product. It should be, quite appropriately, pretty gross. We’ll probably have it out by early September.
You developed a nice following in Minneapolis as a member of Thunder In The Valley, which had a rather abrupt split in 2008. What’s it been like to effectively start from scratch in the city with a new band and a new sound?
It’s easy to get pigeonholed as a band. Thunder In The Valley certainly had that problem. It made it hard to develop our sound beyond what people already expected of us. That feeling was probably 99% in our heads, but it still affected how we operated. So as far as that goes, Leisure Birds is quite liberating.
Last time we talked, you were planning to open a record store in Minneapolis sometime this fall. Any news on that and did you ultimately choose to name it Sport’s Records, which I was lobbying for?
Good question. What are we naming the store… that’s probably the last thing we’ll figure out before we open it. This is much harder than naming a band. And with names like Thunder In The Valley and Leisure Birds, you can get a good idea of how good I am at naming things. Sport’s Records? I certainly have enough copies of Sports by Huey Lewis & The News to merit naming the store Sport’s Records. I don’t know. Sounds a little collegiate to me. Reminds me of the Great Jews in Sports coffee table book that I got for my bar mitzvah — a great idea, but a bit of a stretch.
[Check out Chris Ruen’s blog, The Freeload.]